My Road to an Ironman World Championship

photo by Lee Gruenfeld
Donna Smyers (lower left, blue cap) of Adamant gets ready to begin the 2.4-mile swim leg at the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii on October 6. The swim leg was followed by a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon. Smyers moved up from sixth place in her age group after the swim leg to first place after the bike leg. She held on during the marathon to win the F65-69 age group and set an age group course record.

by Donna Smyers

ADAMANT – To get to the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, an athlete must qualify at other Ironman-branded triathlons. Nearly all the qualifiers require winning your age group at a 140.6-mile Ironman race. An exception is one of the Half Ironman races held on the Big Island of Hawaii that offers slots to Kona. A Half Ironman is also called an Ironman 70.3.

In June, I traveled to Hawaii for the Kona Ironman 70.3 qualifier. I won the Ironman spot for my F65-69 age group. In October, I returned to Kona for my 13th Ironman World Championship.

My first world championship was in 1993; I finished in 10 hours and 41 minutes and placed third in the F35-39 age group. My best time was 10:26, when I was 48. My last time in 2012, I placed second in the F55-59 age group with a time of 11:11.

Counting 2022, I have placed first seven times, second four times, and third twice. This covered six different age groups. I missed competing in the F60-64 age group, but competed in all others from F35-39 to F65-69.

2022 was the first year with two days of racing. With the 2020 and 2021 races cancelled, people had won slots to the Kona Ironman since 2019. Instead of having the usual 2,600 qualified participants, there were 5,200 entries.

photo by Kiersten Ness
Donna Smyers runs up Palani Road during the 26.2-mile marathon leg of the Hawaii Ironman World Championship on October 6, (about 8.5 miles into the marathon)

The expanded field led to all the women and one-third of the men racing on Thursday, October 6. The rest of the men, including the male pros, raced on the usual Saturday date. The two-day format gave the women much better media coverage, and for us age group competitors, it was much cleaner not having so many men crowding the bike course.

Thursday’s conditions were quite different from Saturday’s. Due to excellent wind conditions, the men broke the bike, marathon and overall course records. (The new carbon fiber plate shoe technology probably helped too).

The winning male ran a 2:36 marathon after finishing the 112-mile bike ride in 4:11. The new bike record of 4:04 averaged out to over 27 mph for the entire 112 miles! The women had more classic windy and hot conditions to compete in, resulting in no new records set for the pros.

Having been to Kailua-Kona many times, I’ve experienced different conditions but the heat is omnipresent. It is always about 85-90 degrees for the bike and for the run. Usually there is full sun. It occasionally clouds up or even rains in spots on the course to provide some relief.

Though 2022 was a full-sun year, it was the first time I finished after dark. The sun set at 6 p.m. It was dark for about the last 1:15 of my marathon.

The swim is a 2.4-mile out-and-back that parallels the shore of Kailua Harbor. There is never any surf or big waves here, but there can be swells and chop. This year was a choppy year for the swim.

My swim time of 1:21 was a minute or two slower than I had hoped for. I was pretty much where I wanted to be, exiting the swim in sixth place in my age group. (I was told my place by the people tracking me as I went out of town on the bike.)

The 112-mile bike is always long and has variable winds. The winds were not the best, but also not the worst. Trade winds have a habit of switching directions on the long Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway through the lava fields.

A section had headwinds on our way out and again on our way back, but they were not severe. My 6:16 bike ride was at the faster end of my targeted time. I ate a few Vermont UnTapped lemon maple waffles, some peanut butter pretzel nuggets, and two six-packs of Cliff Blocks, in addition to Gatorade and water. I wanted to have a Coffee Maple Untapped packet, but couldn’t get it open!

Getting off the bike and facing a marathon in 85 to 90-degree temperatures is extremely daunting, but I’ve learned to just take it one mile at a time. It helped that my friends and sister told me that I was winning by over a mile at that point.

I needed to run smart to hold onto the lead, because a few miles of walking can eat up the cushion very quickly. I used to try and run the whole thing, but lately have been doing more 30 to 45-second walk breaks. In my training marathon, I found that walking doesn’t slow me down much and saves the legs.

Unfortunately, the fatigue and heat made my walks start getting longer and more frequent in the six to 13-mile stretch of the marathon.

After a long downhill section to the Energy Lab turnaround, the sun got lower and the heat became less intense. I needed more fuel for energy and had used up all the UnTapped products I was carrying. I started eating the Maurtens gels provided on the course even though I did not like them. Coke, water, and salt supplemented the gels. That allowed me to run the rest of the way, only walking through aid stations every 1.5 miles.

I was running kind of scared because I thought a competitor was closing in. My 4:31 marathon leg held off the fastest marathoner in our group, Jane MacLeod from Ontario. She ran a 4:25 and placed second, 13 minutes behind me.

Jane was on my radar after winning our age group at Ironman Lake Placid this summer with a time that was close to my 2021 time there. One of my other motivators for running more consistently over the last 10 miles was that I knew the F65-69 age group record of 12:28 was in reach.

My calves were cramping the last two miles. I had it under control until the steep carpeted ramp up under the finishing arch. The steep ramp created calf cramps so uncontrollable and severe that they knocked me back a step. I had never experienced cramps like that before in my life.

It took me 12 seconds to complete the last four feet to the finish line. It was very frustrating to be so close to the finish and not be able to get across! As soon as I finished and started to walk down the ramp, the cramps subsided and I was fine. I was very happy to establish the new F65-69 Age Group course record of 12:22:38.

Although I was dehydrated at the end, I never experienced any significant gastrointestinal distress. GI distress from trying to stay fueled while competing so long in such extreme conditions has ruined countless races (mostly for other people, but occasionally for me).

I had some problems the last three times (2008, 2009, and 2012) that I competed in Hawaii and wasn’t sure if I could figure it out this time. Pretzels and the Vermont UnTapped Maple products worked okay for me!